Sunday, July 08, 2012

Be Indian, not barbarian

By Swapan Dasgupta

Some 35 years ago, when I used to waste my leisure hours dabbling in the affairs of the students’ union in my college in London, we received news that a prominent Ethiopian alumnus of the institution had been arrested by the so-called radical Government in Addis Ababa. A small group of 50 students landed up in the Ethiopian Embassy in Kensington the next day to stage a protest.
After a short time, an official from the Embassy came to the group and said that the Ambassador would be pleased to meet a three-member delegation. Since it helped to have a Third World representative, I was among those ushered into the presence of the Ethiopian Ambassador.
The Ambassador, a charming man, shook hands, asked if we would like some tea or something stronger and seated us. Then, he turned to me. “Where are you from?” he asked. “India,” I replied.
“I thought so,” he said. And then, quite to the bewilderment of my English colleagues, he switched to Hindi. “I was educated in India you know,” he informed me. My fellow students said their piece and the Ambassador made routine but polite noises about conveying our feelings to his Government. Then, for the remaining 10 minutes or so, he engaged me in conversation about India and what was happening there.
I don’t know if that encounter made me popular among my colleagues. They probably imagined I was a softie who was easily charmed by a smooth-talking diplomat. That may well be true but it was my first real exposure to Indian ‘soft power’ (of course, the term hadn’t yet been coined).
I thought of the incident last week as I heard with horror the tragic tale of Yannick, the 23-year-old African student in Ludhiana who has been in coma since April 21, when he was beaten up with iron rods and stones and left for dead. His father is now in India pleading for justice.
If the Yannick case was an isolated one, it would have been possible to view it as an act of criminality rather than a racial assault. However, every month brings out a horror story of an African student harassed and persecuted by a society that is completely ill at ease and full of prejudices against people from different cultures. True, these indignities are not heaped exclusively against foreigners: people from the North-east are constant victims of prejudice.
The reasons why people react with suspicion and hostility to people they are not familiar with is a fit subject for social-psychologists. All I can say is that the wide prevalence of racial prejudice in the cities of India puts paid to the self-serving theory that white racism is a by-product of a bigoted mindset that has its roots in colonialism. The Indian student who was shot dead in a grim Manchester neighbourhood earlier this year by a hoodie who laughed as he pulled the trigger didn’t become the target because Clive conquered Bengal and Wellesley defeated Tipoo Sultan. The treatment of African students in India clearly shows that racial prejudice and historical memory have little to do with each other.
Why, to take another example, do young Caucasian women visiting India invariably complain of sexual harassment and worse? It is not because Indians are reliving some imaginary war of independence and paying memsahibs back for the segregated society the British Raj created. What we witness each day against both white women and Africans in India is loutish and criminal behaviour plain and simple. There is just no need to embellish criminality with complex historical and sociological explanations. More to the point, criminality persists because the police force is the repository of every regressive social attitude known to India.
After a number of Indian students were attacked and assaulted in Australia, particularly in Melbourne, the Australian Government woke up to the damaging consequences of the incidents. It set in motion a series of confidence-building measures that included more efficient policing and the closure of bucket shops that masqueraded as educational institutions. In India, the attacks on tourists and African students have been going on for some time. However, there is precious little evidence to suggest that the authorities have been sensitised to the problem. Indeed, if the media hadn’t publicised the case of Yannick, this unfortunate victim would have been lying in hospital forgotten.
For some years India has been gloating about the potential of its ‘soft power’. We have been patting ourselves on the back for the astonishing global reach of Bollywood and the penetration of Indian businesses into unchartered territories. These are undeniably real achievements. But ultimately the goodwill earned by a nation depends on the experience of real people. Britain, for example, rightly believes that its commerce depends largely on the goodwill it earned from those foreigners who lived and studied in the ‘green and pleasant land’. Can India hope to earn that respect from African students who return home with horror stories of people who are both inhospitable and hostile?
The Ethiopian Ambassador I met had been charmed by India. President Hamid Karzai, who studied in Shimla, has a soft corner for India because of his personal experiences. So for that matter does Aung San Suu Kyi. But will these experiences be replicated if the tale of Yannick becomes the norm?
It is time we reflect on our own barbarism.

1 comment:

R.Geetha said...

We are not tolerant of different cultures. And our reaction--beating up--shows that we are not yet civilized to move with alien people. But the educated among us are civilized.